Announcement Two: High Core Count Skylake-X Processors

The twist in the story of this launch comes with the next batch of processors. In our pre-briefing came something unexpected: Intel is bringing the high core count silicon from the enterprise side down to consumers. I’ll cover the parts and then discuss why this is happening.

The HCC die for Skylake is set to be either 18 or 20 cores. I say or, because there’s a small issue with what we had originally thought. If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said that the upcoming HCC core, based on some information I had and a few sources, would be an 18-core design. As with other HCC designs in previous years, while the LCC design is a single ring bus around all the cores, the HCC design would offer a dual ring bus, potentially lopsided, but designed to have an average L3 cache latency with so many cores without being a big racetrack (insert joke about Honda race engines). Despite this, Intel shared a die image of the upcoming HCC implementation, as in this slide:

It is clear that there are repeated segments: four rows of five, indicating the presence of a dual ring bus arrangement. A quick glance might suggest a 20 core design, but if we look at the top and bottom segments of the second column from the left: these cores are designed slightly differently. Are these actual cores? Are they different because they support AVX-512 (a topic discussed later), or are they non-cores, providing die area for something else? So is this an 18-core silicon die or a 20-core silicon die? We’ve asked Intel for clarification, but we were told to await more information when the processor is launched. Answers on a tweet @IanCutress, please.

So with the image of the silicon out of the way, here are the three parts that Intel is planning to launch. As before, all processors support hyperthreading.

Skylake-X Processors (High Core Count Chips)
  Core i9-7940X Core i9-7960X Core i9-7980XE
14/28 16/32 18/36
Clocks TBD
PCIe Lanes TBD
(Likely 44)
Memory Freq TBD
Price $1399 $1699 $1999

As before, let us start from the bottom of the HCC processors. The Core i9-7940X will be a harvested HCC die, featuring fourteen cores, running in the same LGA2066 socket, and will have a tray price of $1399, mimicking the $100/core strategy as before, but likely being around $1449-$1479 at retail. No numbers have been provided for frequencies, turbo, power, DRAM or PCIe lanes, although we would expect DDR4-2666 support and 44 PCIe lanes, given that it is a member of the Core i9 family.

Next up is the Core i9-7960X, which is perhaps the name we would have expected from the high-end LCC processor. As with the 14-core part, we have almost no information except the cores (sixteen for the 7960X), the socket (LGA2066) and the price: $1699 tray ($1779 retail?). Reiterating, we would expect this to support at least DDR4-2666 memory and 44 PCIe lanes, but unsure on the frequencies.

The Core i9-7980XE sits atop of the stack as the halo part, looking down on all those beneath it. Like an unruly dictator, it gives nothing away: all we have is the core count at eighteen, the fact that it will sit in the LGA2066 socket, and the tray price at a rather cool $1999 (~$2099 retail). When this processor will hit the market, no-one really knows at this point. I suspect even Intel doesn’t know.

Analysis: Why Offer HCC Processors Now?

The next statement shouldn’t be controversial, but some will see it this way: AMD and ThreadRipper.

ThreadRipper is AMD’s ‘super high-end desktop’ processor, going above the eight cores of the Ryzen 7 parts with a full sixteen cores of their high-end microarchitecture. Where Ryzen 7 competed against Broadwell-E, ThreadRipper has no direct competition, unless we look at the enterprise segment.

Just to be clear, Skylake-X as a whole is not a response to ThreadRipper. Skylake-X, as far as we understand, was expected to be LCC only: up to 12 cores and sitting happy. Compared to AMD’s Ryzen 7 processors, Intel’s Broadwell-E had an advantage in the number of cores, the size of the cache, the instructions per clock, and enjoyed high margins as a result. Intel had the best, and could charge more. (Whether you thought paying $1721 for a 10-core BDW-E made sense compared to a $499 8-core Ryzen with fewer PCIe lanes, is something you voted on with your wallet). Pretty much everyone in the industry, at least the ones I talk to, expected more of the same. Intel could launch the LCC version of Skylake-X, move up to 12-cores, keep similar pricing and reap the rewards.

When AMD announced ThreadRipper at the AMD Financial Analyst Day in early May, I fully suspect that the Intel machine went into overdrive (if not before). If AMD had a 16-core part in the ecosystem, even at a lower 5-15% IPC to Intel, it would be likely that Intel with 12-cores might not be the halo product anymore. Other factors come into play of course, as we don’t know all the details of ThreadRipper such frequencies, or the fact that Intel has a much wider ecosystem of partners than AMD. But Intel sells A LOT of its top-end HEDT processor. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 10-core $1721 part was the bestselling Broadwell-E processor. So if AMD took that crown, Intel would lose a position it has held for a decade.

So imagine the Intel machine going into overdrive. What would be going through their heads? Competing in performance-per-dollar? Pushing frequencies? Back in the days of the frequency race, you could just slap a new TDP on a processor and just bin harder. In the core count race, you actually need physical cores to provide that performance, if you don’t have 33%+ IPC difference. I suspect the only way in order to provide a product in the same vein was to bring the HCC silicon to consumers.

Of course, I would suspect that inside Intel there was push back. The HCC (and XCC) silicon is the bread and butter of the company’s server line. By offering it to consumers, there is a chance that the business Intel normally gets from small and medium businesses, or those that buy single or double-digit numbers of systems, might decide to save a lot of money by going the consumer route. There would be no feasible way for Intel to sell HCC-based processors to end-users at enterprise pricing and expect everyone to be happy.

Knowing what we know about working with Intel for many years, I suspect that the HCC was the most viable option. They could still sell a premium part, and sell lots of them, but the revenue would shift from enterprise to consumer. It would also knock back any threat from AMD if the ecosystem comes into play as well.

As it stands, Intel has two processors lined up to take on ThreadRipper: the sixteen-core Core i9-7960X at $1699, and the eighteen-core Core i9-7980XE at $1999. A ThreadRipper design is two eight-core Zeppelin silicon designs in the same package – a single Zeppelin has a TDP of 95W at 3.6 GHz to 4.0 GHz, so two Zeppelin dies together could have a TDP of 190W at 3.6 GHz to 4.0 GHz, though we know that AMD’s top silicon is binned heavy, so it could easily come down to 140W at 3.2-3.6 GHz. This means that Intel is going to have to compete with those sorts of numbers in mind: if AMD brings ThreadRipper out to play at around 140W at 3.2 GHz, then the two Core i9s I listed have to be there as well. Typically Intel doesn’t clock all the HCC processors that high, unless they are the super-high end workstation designs.

So despite an IPC advantage and an efficiency advantage in the Skylake design, Intel has to ply on the buttons here. Another unknown is AMD’s pricing. What would happen if ThreadRipper comes out at $999-$1099?  

But I ask our readers this:

Do you think Intel would be launching consumer grade HCC designs for HEDT if ThreadRipper didn’t exist?

For what it is worth, kudos all around. AMD for shaking things up, and Intel for upping the game. This is what we’ve missed in consumer processor technology for a number of years.

(To be fair, I predicted AMD’s 8-core to be $699 or so. To see one launched at $329 was a nice surprise).

I’ll add another word that is worth thinking about. AMD’s ThreadRipper uses a dual Zeppelin silicon, with each Zeppelin having two CCXes of four cores apiece. As observed in Ryzen, the cache-to-cache latency when a core needs data in other parts of the cache is not consistent. With Intel’s HCC silicon designs, if they are implementing a dual-ring bus design, also have similar issues due to the way that cores are grouped. For users that have heard of NUMA (non-unified memory access), it is a tricky thing to code for and even trickier to code well for, but all the software that supports NUMA is typically enterprise grade. With both of these designs coming into consumer, and next-to-zero NUMA code for consumer applications (including games), there might be a learning period in performance. Either that or we will see software pinning itself to particular groups of cores in order to evade the issue entirely.

Announcement One: Low Core Count Skylake-X Processors Announcement Three: Skylake-X's New L3 Cache Architecture
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  • Strunf - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    "even if manages to take tangible lead against a 16 core threadripper, it will not be worth the money." on this market niche money means nothing... AMD needs to have a 10%+ performance advantage to be considered cause Intel has a much better brand value, if anything the 16 core Threadripper is a desperate attempt by AMD to actually gain some traction on the HEDT.
    About the thermal limit, yes there's a wall but with the new Turbo the two best cores of a CPU can be clocked higher than the rest and hence give you better single thread performance when need, this is the future no doubt about it.

    You guys need to realize it's not cause AMD releases a product that is better on all metrics that everyone will shift to AMD, brand value counts and in the case of CPU the motherboard matters too, sure AMD has some nice motherboards but overall the Intel motherboards seem to be better furnished albeit at a higher cost.
  • ddriver - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Sure, intel's high prices are justified by several things:

    corporate brand loyalty
    amd's limited production capacity

    But all in all, money is EVERYTHING, the whole industry cares primarily about one thing, and that's profit. There is absolutely no good reason to pay 100% more for 10% more. I mean not unless someone else does the actual paying.

    Only an idiot would care about "brand value". Computers are supposed to do work, not make up for your poor self-esteem. Any intelligent person who needs performance would put his money where he'd get the most bang for the buck. Workstation grade workloads render particularly well to multithreading but also to clustering. So if you want more performance, the smart solution is to aim for the best price/performance product, and get a lot of it, rather than getting the single most expensive product.

    AMD is not desperately trying anything. It's desktop line pretty much annihilated intel's existing HEDT offerings at significantly lower price points. It is intel desperately trying to not lose the HEDT market to AMD's mainstream offerings. They'd rather throw in a couple of extra cores even if it makes zero sense, just to not disillusion their fanboys.

    I am not speaking of any brand loyalty point, I have like 70 active systems and they all run intel CPUs. I am however very happy and eager to diversify and replace most of those, which are aging 3770k chips with something that offers higher performance and better power/performance ratio.
  • Hxx - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    well, first off general comments have no place in the tech industry due to the variety of use cases and products. Folks care about brand value on certain items , say motherboard brands but not so much maybe on CPUs.
    Second, AMD did not annihilate Intel by any stretch of the imagination. where do u guys get this info? Probably from . Anyway their ryzen release is solid but they need cpus with higher IPCs or higher than Intel which they currently don't have.
    Third, I'm not sure what you mean by intel and desperately but there is nothing desperate about this current announcement. CPUs don't take 2 months to develop. Its not like Intel said in response to Ryzen "oh yeah? lets build a better cpu". these cpus have been fully developed and waiting retail release, maybe Ryzen pushed them to prioritize this release but these were not build as a "response to Ryzen" by any means.
  • ddriver - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Ryzen offered intel's E series of performance at half the cost. That's twice the value. You don't need imagination, much less to stretch it, to realize that 100% better value is tad amount to annihilation. This is over-exponated by the fact it was mainstream CPUs against premium HEDT.

    And YES, it is desperation, because this product was never intended for HEDT, this is not a case of intel holding a trump card just in case amd finally decides to stop sitting on its hands. The 18 core chip was intended for server parts, and its arrival is exactly on time to be directly caused by the Ryzen launch. Intel simply too a server part with some deffective or disabled cores, in order to gain TDP headroom to boos the clocks of the remaining cores higher. It is not like intel sat down and "let's design a whole new chip in response to ryzen" - that would take significantly more time, they simply took a server part, crippled it a bit, overclocked it a bit, just so they can have a HEDT product with 2 more cores, and in doing so, sacrificing the amount of money they will make on that chip just to save face, as it would have been significantly more expensive as a xeon branded product.

    Had amd not launched ryzen, intel's current gen HEDT would have capped out at 12 cores. The 18 core solution is a last resort, last moment solution, and not too economically viable either. So yeah, it is desperation.

    But then again, expecting someone who cannot property format a paragraph to get common sense might be pushing it...
  • ddriver - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Keep in mind had not intel sacrificed xeons to make that 18 core chip, its HEDT line would have been stuck at 12 cores, meaning that threadripper would have made intel look like a second-class CPU maker in that segment.

    So yes, it is quite literally burning money to save face for intel.
  • Kjella - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Burning money? Ever since Bulldozer started lagging behind Intel has been printing money like crazy, this is just a return to normal profit margins because AMD is back on the field. Intel made $10 billion profit last year, I'm sure they'll survive this horrible "loss".
  • ddriver - Wednesday, May 31, 2017 - link

    The "desperation" is not for their survival, they survived the netburst fiasco when their product was marginally inferior.

    The desperation is to not look like a second grade choice in the HEDT market, thus sacrificing a much more profitable die to save face.
  • rocky12345 - Thursday, June 1, 2017 - link

    "The "desperation" is not for their survival, they survived the netburst fiasco when their product was marginally inferior."

    Back in Netburst days AMD was a lot better with what they had to offer. Heck AMD CPU running at 2000Mhz was able to keep up to or surpass a Pentium 4 @3.2Ghz. It only got worse when dual core Ahtlon's came about and Intel had to make the Pentium 4 D's but still running much much faster clock rate just to stay in the game. Very few people seem to remember Intel had a lot of bad years as well. Pentium 4 series all sucked Donkey Nutz nuf said.

    As others have said if AMD did not release Ryzen that competes nicely with Intel's HEDT platform at half the price then AMD say's oh we have a 16/32 Threadripper as well Intel would not be releasing the 18/36 CPU right now they would have kept that CPU in the Zeon line where they make the big bucks hell that 18 core is probably a cut down 20/40 Zeon retro fitted to be a X series chip. Anyways all this means it is good for us the consumers we get more choice and hopefully at a better price also.
  • ddriver - Friday, June 2, 2017 - link

    Don't forget that with AMD you get marginally better value. So even if the 18 core intel HEDT chip is tangibly faster than the top tier threadripper, for 2000$ AMD could get you a 32 core Epyc that will beat the 18 core in performance, and pretty much every other chip intel have at any price point.

    The 18 core number is also interesting as AMD's design is practically incapable of efficiently producing such a SKU, so even if intel don't get the fastest single chip, they will still be technically getting the performance crown in HEDT, albeit with a server chip they shoehorned there, and with a unique core count that AMD cannot exactly match, even if they can significantly outmatch.
  • Azethoth - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Dude, you are missing an opportunity to really diss Intel here. Why just compare AMD to the last gen Intel chips from many years ago when you can go back decades!

    Compare to the pentium. Then you can claim that AMD annihilated Intel, scraped up the ashes then decimated those, then threw them in the microwave and nuked them before getting hookers to pee on the dust and leaving it out to blow around in the sun and wind!

    As it is your post is too weak to take seriously.

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